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Non-punitive parenting: Could it work for your family?

Non-punitive parenting is a parenting movement that seeks to raise children without any form of punishment: no spanking, no time outs, no yelling.

At first glance it may seem like a way of raising out-of-control kids, but parents who practice it claim that it develops well-behaved children and establishes a strong relationship between Parent and Child.

The majority of parents today were raised in punitive households, where punishments and consequences were doled out for bad behavior. Punitive parenting is what most of America is familiar with, and because of that, the non-punitive parenting model can be a difficult concept to grasp.

What is non-punitive parenting?

Non-punitive parenting is a style of parenting that breaks the punitive mold by avoiding physical punishment, treating children with respect, and focusing on developing a strong parent-child relationship. It is a method that raises children without spanking, shaming, or yelling, and avoids the punishment-reward cycle of traditional punitive parenting.

With punitive parenting, punishments are given for inappropriate behavior, and rewards are given out to encourage good behavior. If a child misbehaves, they are given a punishment to teach them a lesson and to act as a warning that if they misbehave again they will receive the same punishment. Rewards may be given for good behavior; for example, if you pick up your toys you get an ice cream cone.

In non-punitive parenting, the parent seeks to instill good behavior in their child without dependence upon punishments and rewards. A child raised in a non-punitive environment does not behave well simply out of fear of punishment, or to get a reward in return for good behavior. Brooke Walsh, mother of two, says, “punitive parenting seeks to gain compliance by threatening children with punishments or enticing them with bribes; non-punitive parenting seeks respect by giving kids respect.”

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No punishment does not mean no consequences

Raising a child without punishment does not mean letting him behave however he wishes. This style of parenting relies heavily on natural consequences when undesirable behavior arises. If a child can’t play responsibly with a toy, that toy may be taken away until the child can play with it appropriately. If a child is hitting or being unkind to others, then the child is removed from the situation until she can compose herself and behave appropriately again. This differs from a traditional time out in the sense that it seeks to teach the child the skills that she needs to regain composure, rather than seeking simply to punish her by not allowing her to play.

Walsh points out, “While there are not punishments, this is not permissive parenting. We still set boundaries. We still set rules. We just respond differently if these rules are not followed.” Walsh adds that non-punitive parenting works because when children see their needs being met and their parents modeling respectful behavior for them, they begin to learn to give that respect back without the need for punishment or bribery.

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Non-violent communication is key

Non-violent communication is a cornerstone of non-punitive parenting and can be helpful even within a punitive model of parenting. Non-violent communication is about more than just not yelling, it is a way of looking at the needs of children and parents alike, meeting those needs and communicating when needs are not met.

It is based on the theory that all humans have basic needs — for physical things like food and shelter, but also for emotional things like acceptance and love. When these needs are met people are able to interact with others respectfully and feel a sense of well-being. “When I first started studying non-violent communication, I began to see it as this kind of handbook on how to communicate to anyone at any time about anything,” said Brooke Walsh.

Using non-violent communication involves not just communicating with children in a way that is respectful, but teaching them about the basic needs that they have and how to recognize when they are feeling frustrated, sad, angry, happy, excited, and so on. When they are able to recognize these emotions they become able to communicate them instead of simply acting on them. Parents, then, interpret the child’s emotions to figure out what unmet need is causing the emotion and help the child create an action plan toward respect again.

When a child needs sleep, for instance, he may be unable to play with toys that require concentration or restraint (such as a ball in the house). During those times a parent may decide to find another activity for the child, acting preemptively to avoid an undesirable situation instead of waiting for the situation to occur and then responding with a punishment. “In this way, non-punitive parenting is the art of acting before a problem occurs instead of just responding when things go wrong. It’s discipline of continual guidance,” Brooke Walsh says.

Tell us

What do you think of this style of parenting? Do you think it could be effective, or does it miss the mark?

More on discipline

Alternatives to spanking: Positive parenting
Evaluating your discipline techniques
When parents disagree on discipline

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